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Published: Monday, 7/17/2006

Ice rink owner cool to subsidy for competitor

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo businessman Ken Miller's son plays professional hockey in Fort Wayne, Ind., and his other son is a minor league coach.

The family grew up in this Great Lakes winter subculture, here near the Canadian border, that breathes the game.

"We're hockey people," he said last week from his Toledo ice rink facility, called The Ice House. "Everybody keeps saying, 'The Ice House is closing down.' We're not closing down; we're hockey people."

The thin financial margin in ice facilities has kept Mr. Miller and two co-owners on their financial toes, but he said with the Junior-B Toledo Cherokees playing each season at the facility, they can make it. They are also looking for investors to maybe expand and add a practice rink, which would help, he said.

But the privately owned rink at 1258 West Alexis Rd. could face government-subsidized competition from a proposed ice facility at the 125-acre Marina District, Mr. Miller said. And the owner of the Cherokees, Chuck LeMay, is one of the investors in the new project.

The group of investors wants to have two rinks in a building, with other amenities, up and running by September, 2007.

The city and Jerry Jones, the main consultant for the investors and chief executive officer of Woodlands Consulting Group in Maumee, are trying to come to a deal on the tax incentives, including whether the city would give land or lease it.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner announced that the $6 million project would sit just south of the shuttered Toledo Edison Acme power plant, which is the centerpiece building of the Marina District site in East Toledo.

"Basically, from the city, we are looking for shared parking and the tax abatement, which is crucial. We haven't decided how we are going to do the land, whether we are going to lease or buy it. Certainly, we would like to see the land as a gift. Some of the things we were looking for are low-interest loans and that comes through the state and the city also providing an economic development loan," Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Miller said he could use some public financing to support his business. He doesn't think the situation is fair, he said.

"It costs a pretty good penny to run a rink. I wonder if they know what they are getting into," he said. "If they want to build a new ice rink, it would hurt us. People are going to go somewhere that is new. How fair is that? We've been in the rink business for years, we know what it takes."

The new rink project would include the first private money into the Marina District, which has failed at attracting a major retail shop, such as sporting goods giant Bass Pro Shops.

Since failing to attract Bass Pro earlier this year, Mayor Finkbeiner has changed course and is now focusing on the public aspects of the development, such as building a marina with boat slips and a passenger terminal for possible Great Lakes cruise ships to use.

Once those projects are in place, the private retail will follow, he predicts.

Mr. Jones said the group of investors, which includes three main members in a limited liability corporation, is raising at least $1 million for the venture. The rest would come from public help or low-interest government loans.

Mr. Jones said in Michigan, 15 rinks are supported in the area around Canton, Taylor, and Detroit. In the Toledo area, there are not enough rinks, and parents have to drive to Bowling Green and Michigan to play at odd hours. There is enough business to go around, he said.

"If you have that many rinks surviving, and we have one or two in Toledo, then my case rests. If we had another two rinks in this town, you would see the increased participation of the kids who want to play," Mr. Jones said. "These kids grew up on [Detroit] Red Wings. They have the adrenaline up, and they can't play because there's no ice."

The city of Sylvania owns Tam O'Shanter Sports Inc. ice rink at 7060 Sylvania Ave. and leases it to a private group.

"The city of Taylor built a $23 million rink with indoor soccer. Toledo, because of its charter can't do that," he said. "We've got kids going from Toledo to Taylor, and that's sad."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com or 419-724-6077.



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